Reclaiming “It Just Works”
Everyone agrees that Apple’s software quality has taken a dive in the last couple of years. Interestingly, I hear a lot of fingers being pointed at Apple’s yearly release schedule as being too aggressive.
That isn’t the reason quality is suffering, though. Apple’s hardware is updated yearly (or more) and has been for years and it’s been steadily improving.
Apple’s quality is taking a nose dive because they’re making software products that are more complex than ever, and are fundamentally different from what they were doing ten years ago, and the way they develop and release their software hasn’t caught up.
Take, for instance, the ability to send/receive SMS/MMS messages from all your devices by relaying them through iPhone. Apple advertised this as a feature of Yosemite but you can’t just install Yosemite and get SMS relay. You need 8 on your iPhone so it can actually do the relaying. And of course you need an iCloud that can receive SMSes from your iPhone and propagate them through the iMessages system.
I doubt any of these changes were huge. Apple probably could have just added them to iOS 7 and Mavericks, but instead Apple reserves all but the most trivial of new features for new OS releases, so SMS relay, along with every other feature released in Yosemite and iOS 8, had to fight for QA testing time and tight resources in the weeks prior to their respective releases.
But what if Apple had had added these features earlier? The teams could have worked independently and shipped their own components of the feature silently into iOS and OS X updates. They could have run rigorous functional and load testing against each part of the system, and when they had everything tested and known to be working, they could have flipped a switch to turn the feature on and market it. Since the feature is getting released by itself, it gets more special attention and it’s less likely to be forgotten in the giant pile of features Apple goes over in keynotes.
And if Apple prefers to keep the magic of a big surprise release they could have even waited till iOS 8 was out to make it official, and it could have been available for anyone who had an up-to-date Mavericks install on their Mac (if you recall, SMS relay didn’t ship with iOS 8, but rather it didn’t come out until iOS 8.1 which in turn didn’t come out until after Yosemite was released). Either way, the feature would have benefited from getting tested as thoroughly as it needs to at Apple’s scale.
I really love the ambitious pace Apple is taking with bringing out new and more awesome stuff. They probably need to bring on more engineers and probably more QA staff to help address these issues as well. But just throwing more resources won’t solve this problem. Apple’s not just doing more; the nature of what they’re building is something they’ve never done before.
Apple loves to be magical and surprise us with new stuff completely out of nowhere. But even Apple’s not immune to the complexities of large software projects. When Tim Cook made the executive shuffle that included firing Forstall, he claimed to do it in the spirit of increased collaboration between different parts of the company. We’re seeing the fruits of that now, but Apple needs to change more things unless they’re okay with a mediocre level of quality.